Blog: Mike Kenny

The children's theatre writer on dragging the eternal child into the 21st century

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“All children, except one, grow up.”

This the first line of Peter Pan. It’s genius, isn’t it? It is a story that was brilliant when it was written over 100 years ago, and it still stands up today. It started life as a play, and it’s particularly significant for me because I write theatre for children, and Peter Pan is, pretty much, where it all started. It does all the stuff a good play for children would do. It’s a fantastic story, but it also doesn’t insult anybody’s intelligence. Grown-ups love it too. It’s a deep meditation on the nature of childhood, and it’s pretty good on grown-ups too. I mean, aren’t adults all being hunted down by a ticking clock o’dial that will eventually eat them?

I got approached by Tutti Frutti to do a scaled-down version, and to tell the story from Wendy’s point of view. I jumped at the opportunity. What’s not to like? JM Barrie already did all the hard work. Yeah, well. It was a lesson in be careful what you wish for. This is why.

The thing about the theatre is it is the art of the present. It doesn’t age well. Think about it. It happens in real time in a real place. It’s not like a book or a film, which gets made and then watched some time later. Theatre doesn’t happen unless everyone is there at the same time – the performers and the audience. Any performer will tell you that every time is different. You had to be there. Tomorrow night will be different. This simple fact has strange knock-ons. A play is a conversation with an audience about the present day. If you’re watching a piece of history, it’s dead as dust. But however old the play is, the audience bring who they are now into the theatre and a play has to have contemporary resonance.

Going back to Peter Pan, this is the issue. Not many works of art embed themselves in the culture so that even people who may never have actually read it or seen it still know about Neverland. The children in the story get spirited away there. Neverland has got to be childhood, hasn’t it? A place where anything you can imagine can happen. Incredibly exciting, but dangerous too: mermaids that could pull you under water, pirates that want to kidnap you – a health and safety nightmare. Fantastic! Although the opening lines are about not growing up, the story is all about playing out what the future might contain. Wendy is recruited as mother to the lost boys, and takes the role on with gusto. The boys are in training as future warriors. OK, they’re just trying on those roles for size. It’s just a game. But…

The children who would have watched it in 1904 were the generation who fought in the First World War 10 years later. It makes you wonder when you read it now. Peter Pan, the boy who says: “Death would be an awfully big adventure.” And Wendy, the surrogate mother who says: “We hope our sons will die like English gentlemen.” These were the roles that a whole generation took on in their real lives. I’m not blaming Peter Pan for World War One, but it’s very revealing about the culture that built the men who marched away, and the women who supported them.

So, back to my version in the now. I’m putting this story in front of modern-day children. Because I’m telling it from Wendy’s point of view – while she’s telling the story she’s thinking about what she’s going to be doing when she’s grown up – I take a few liberties to drag the story into the 21st century. Peter Pan is the exception to the rule. The rest of us do have to grow up, eventually. Modern day Wendys can reasonably expect to be other things as well as mothers. In my version she fancies being an astronaut, but in the course of playing with her brothers she tries flying, being a mermaid, a pirate, even Peter Pan himself. She totally turns the world upside down, and between them they make Neverland in their back yard. They make a lot of mess too. And noise. And fun. And although they all accept that they have to grow up eventually, it’s not just yet. And it is just as much a celebration of childhood as the original. Who knows what today’s children will grow up into. I’m hoping that my version of the story offers them a few extra options.

Underneath a Magical Moon is at York Theatre Royal, 6-22 Oct and then touring until late December including Waterside Arts Centre, Sale, on 8-31 Dec

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